“I feel like people who are socially unaware lead such unfulfilling lives,” my friend Steve said to me one day.
I laughed; out of context, I imagine that statement certainly might not be taken very well by its subjects. But I knew what he meant. Conversations about social issues are my favorite conversations to have. As a sociology student, I’m fascinated and fueled by them. They encourage me to think critically and to challenge myself. Since Steve and I are coworkers, I’ve been able to enjoy a lot of those conversations everyday this summer with him, and thank goodness for that — he and I are in agreement that the conversations we’ve overheard in the predominantly white, affluent downtown area we work in have been painfully lackluster, concerned only with issues that seem so superficial and trivial in relation to the hard-hitting issues concerning our entire society that Steve and I (and so many other people of marginalized identities) love to discuss. It was in regards to that that he had shared his personal thoughts on “people who are socially unaware.”
“You know, they could say the same thing about us, though,” I had replied, thinking of the lens through which I now view the world, reflecting on how disillusioned I’ve become with things that once were entertaining or “harmless” and how, to some, that disillusionment might not sound very fulfilling at all.
I often say that I can’t “un-see” or “un-hear” social issues. When one’s eyes are opened to these things, it’s hard not to close them. My passion for social justice bleeds into every aspect of my life. I can’t sit through most of what is supposed to be comedy anymore. I cheer when I see a relatable, diverse cast in a TV show or movie or even a commercial, and I am incredibly dissatisfied when I don’t. I’m constantly checking myself to make sure I don’t use terms that perpetuate discrimination and oppression. Some could argue that I “take things too seriously” or that I’m “not fun to be around at parties.” Some have already said that they no longer feel comfortable saying certain jokes or making certain remarks around me. (To those people, sorry to say your words don’t faze me; if you feel uncomfortable making jokes or remarks rooted in putting down others around me, then I’m doing my job right.)
So, based on what I’m sure was a less than appealing description of how being (or at least, trying to be) “woke” has changed my perspective, I can see why some might find my life “unfulfilling” by their standards. But by my standards, I don’t think my life is unfulfilling at all. Not unless exemplifying the phrase “ignorance is bliss” is regarded as fulfilling, in which case, I’ve actively been avoiding a “fulfilling life” this whole time. But anyone who knows me knows that that isn’t the case. I’m finding so much fulfillment in the life I currently lead. Though it can be exhausting, speaking on these issues is so rewarding to me. It’s where my passion lies. Trying to fight for the underdog, helping groups of minorities achieve respectful treatment, shaking up the current status quo, that’s what fulfills me. As far as not enjoying comedy anymore goes, I haven’t lost my sense of humor — I just search for entertainment that doesn’t rely on discrimination to be funny. (Orange is the New Black is one of my forever favorites — intelligently funny and witty, poking at very real issues in a comedic way that also effectively gets the viewer to think critically. See ‘Further Reading’ links at the end of this post.)
“Okay, Manilyn. So why should I try to be ‘woke’?”
I was once asked, “You say I have a lot of privilege. Why can’t I just use it and stay in that privilege to be comfortable? Why do I have to bend over backwards to help someone else?” It was a long time ago, but that question still haunts me today, knowing that that might be the mentality of many who seem to deliberately remain indifferent and apathetic on social issues. I don’t remember what I said in response — my activism has grown tremendously since, so I hope it was at least something good, as primitive as my knowledge was back then — but I do know how I’d answer it today:
Empathy, humility, and a Desmond Tutu quote.
How appealing it is to simply retreat back into our privilege and remain comfortable and complacent. Who wouldn’t, right, when I just named all the different ways with which I view the world — unable to enjoy x, y, or z the way I used to? So appealing, to stay in our bubbles and not be inconvenienced by others, to not go the extra mile to learn more about gender identity or sexual orientation or different cultures or different abilities because we’re in a society that benefits the cishets, the Westernized and eurocentric, and the able-bodied and able-minded. When you’re cisgender, heterosexual, white, and able-bodied in a cis/heteronormative, white hegemonic, patriarchal, and ableist society, it’s easy to stay comfortable, and to want to stay comfortable. And once we’re comfortable, we forget that that comfort comes at the expense of others’ discomfort. That leads me back to empathy. I can’t imagine why anyone wouldn’t want to address injustice unless they were 1) just completely unaware or 2) lacking in basic empathy for their fellow human beings. The way I see it, the discomfort of learning about the diversity in our society is worth stomaching when that diversity has historically experienced oppressive discomfort on systemic and social levels.
To be able to empathize is first achieved by humility. Too many times have I been engaged in conversations where my opposite (who is usually white, cisgender, heterosexual, middle-class, or some combination of all those dominant identities) claims to be listening to my personal experiences with discrimination or that of others — but then dismisses those experiences, failing to remember the fact that they have never and will never experience what I’m talking about, thus failing to humble themselves and see past their own points of view, thus failing to empathize. (Depending on the context, this dismissal is referred to with the pejoratives “mansplaining” or “whitesplaining” in social justice circles.) What better proof of a cis/heteronormative white hegemonic patriarchy is there than Person A (who benefits from being cisgendered, heterosexual, white, male, able-bodied, etc.) telling Person B (who belongs to few or none of those dominant identities but rather identifies with one or more subordinated identities) how to feel about Person B’s lived experiences with discrimination?
I don’t know about y’all, but I’ve heard this quote a million times. Doesn’t make it any less relevant or true, though. (And it’s on a sweater that I really, really, really want.)
If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.
Choosing neutrality in a society so skewed to benefit a certain group of individuals only enables the current status quo to continue. It perpetuates the discrimination and oppression faced by others. If these three things still aren’t enough to make someone see the value in staying woke on social issues, I don’t know what would (but you can be darn sure I’d still try and figure it out).
Speaking of empathy and humility, though, I’d be remiss if I didn’t check my own self here. One thing I’ve tried to be particularly aware of is how I might exhibit “social justice elitism” (again, see links at the end of this post). I first heard that term at the Social Justice Training Institute I attended not too long ago, and it’s exactly what I need to keep in mind. It’s easy to be self-congratulatory in this line of work. It’s easy to pass judgment on others who avoid educating themselves on social issues, as the beginning conversation of this post might suggest. It’s easy to be elitist and exclusive, ironically, in this journey to work for inclusion. None of that is okay, which is exactly why I know I’m not exempt from checking myself.
When I find myself frustrated with others’ apparent complacency, indifference, or neutrality, I try to practice the very empathy and humility I was just preaching about in this post. I was blind to these issues too, I remind myself, and not just blind — I perpetuated many of these issues. I let racist jokes aimed at me slide, and I parroted them back to others. I internalized whiteness and disregarded or was ashamed of my own identity as a Filipina American (only unless the lechon was out or we were celebrating Simbang Gabi). I internalized sexism and let people dismiss me or others based on gender. I internalized heteronormativity and assumed everyone I met was heterosexual; I even remember naively and ignorantly uttering the damaging words during my freshman year of high school, “I’m okay with people being gay, I just don’t want to see two guys kissing or anything like that.” I’m ashamed of all of that, and while I’ve learned, grown, and changed so much since, I’ll own up to it all. I know I have to in order to keep reminding myself of where I started and to keep myself humble.
My humble reminders aren’t limited to just my beginnings as an activist, either–I draw from interactions I’ve had every single day where I’ve spoken too much or not spoken enough, or where I’ve been faced with a situation that has me writing a note to myself: “Tonight’s homework: Look up ______.” In the previous paragraph, I’d written that I “was” blind to these issues. But it would be extremely arrogant of me to assume I don’t still have some blinders on. I mean, in this blog post alone, there were some things I was still unsure of how to articulate, and I don’t deny I might have misspoken. It’s uncomfortable to put oneself out there with these things, I know, but it’s not stopping me. A moment of discomfort to humbly learn a lesson is worth avoiding a lifetime of unchecked mistakes and arrogance. (Check out my friend Jazlynn’s post “Bad Activist.” I adore her insights on activist self-awareness.)
This post was a wild mess of many thoughts ranging from elitism to humility and everything in between, and I can imagine that is exactly what turns people off from dialogues on social issues. It’s not neat. It’s not easy. It’s messy. It’s exhausting. It’s challenging. It’s made me see the world in a different way that I can’t go back from. Despite my best efforts and intentions, it enables me to be elitist or exclusive and therefore forces me to constantly check myself. It’s a lot to put on myself, I know, but like I’ve written many times before, I’d rather shoulder this responsibility than have to deal with the consequences of comfortable, silent neutrality. It’s a lot to put on myself, and it’s a lot to ask of my peers who enjoy their comfortable silence. But I can’t not ask — not when I believe every single individual can make a difference, especially once they explore their identities, once they acknowledge their privileges, once they recognize how they have contributed to society, and once they realize how they can contribute from this point forward.
I’d rather be woke. Would you?
Young Hollywood: “4 Important Social Issues Orange Is the New Black Tackled This Season”
Slate: “The Excellent New Season of Orange Is the New Black Couldn’t Feel More Timely”
The Mary Sue: “Orange Is the New Black Season 4 and Intersectional Social Justice”
Everyday Feminism: “9 Ways We Can Make Social Justice Movements Less Elitist and More Accessible”
The CSJE Blog: “The Culture of Campus Social Justice Elitism”
*The books featured in the header image are books I personally own. It does not include books I’ve checked out from libraries or possess electronically, and therefore is not an exhaustive list of the social justice-related literature I’ve explored. (To friends and family who know me personally: If any of these titles catch your eye, I’d be more than happy to lend out any of them to you!)